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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Liar's Tale: A History of Falsehood by Jeremy Campbell (W.W. Norton) A bold new exploration of ethics and philosophy, The Liar's Tale extols the benefits of falsehood. Fireflies find mates by duping rivals with patterns of deceptive flashes. Politicians win elections by distorting statistics and telling half-truths. The devices of falsehood, whether simple exaggeration, pretense, or barefaced lies; are hard to resist and easy to employ. Now, in a provocative work that turns Sissela Bok's Lying on its head, Jeremy Campbell presents a daring inquiry into the nature of deception. With insight into rhetoric, language, and the sciences, Campbell launches his discussion with Darwin and evolutionary biology, and from there builds a foundation of philosophical evidence that is both counterintuitive and highly engaging. We encounter the purism of the ancients and their battles with the Sophists, the many faces of falsehood decried by Montaigne, the dark ethos of Kant and Nietzsche, and the reckless shift made by Derrida and the postmodernists favoring "meaning" at the expense of truth. Unsettling and highly original, The Liar's Tale is sure to provoke a new debate about truth and ethics.

Lies are often so subtle, so deftly woven into easily acceptable truths that we often fail to recognize them. Fireflies find mates by duping rivals with pat­terns of deceptive flashes; politicians win elections by distorting statistics and spouting half-truths; artists often prize imagination and beauty over sim­ple realism. We accept these events as conventional occurrences and rarely question how they came to pass nor do we debate their merit.

Beginning with a discussion of evolutionary biology and the necessity (and ultimate value) of deceit in the animal kingdom, Campbell asks the unsettling question of whether falsehood might, in fact, be instinctual, or at least natural. From there, Campbell describes the classical philosophical foun­dation of truth as the ultimate category of knowl­edge and organization, focusing on Aristotle and his battles with the Sophists, early philosophers who claimed that truth was unstable and illusory. This division within classical thought has reappeared throughout history, even in the European enlighten­ment, which centered on the possibility of individual knowledge and liberty. Campbell's seamless integra­tion of art, literature, and philosophy shows how the nineteenth century's focus on individuality, imagina­tion, and irony eventually began to privilege artifice and fraud over nature and simplicity. Ultimately, this laid the foundation for the twentieth century's philo­sophical and cultural apotheosis of lying, exempli­fied by figures such as Freud, Wittgenstein, and Derrida---all of whom made deception and ambigu­ity a main thematic component of their thought.

In its vast scope and fluid integration of a mul­titude of disciplines and ideas, The Liar's Tale is a daring inquiry into the nature of deception and its place in our cultural heritage. Unsettling and highly original, The Liar's Tale promises to provoke re­newed interest and debate about truth and ethics.


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